Russell Brand is not a total idiot. The comedian and would-be revolutionary vanguardist has said a number of not-so-stupid things in the midst of his verbose political rantings. Speaking on Saturday in front of a crowd of 50,000 at a London rally against UK austerity measures, Brand gestured to the Houses of Parliament and rightly noted, "The people of this building generally speaking do not represent us, they represent their friends in big business."
I also agree with his controversial position on voting. Brand doesn't vote, as he admitted in a BBC interview in 2013. Like me, Brand is not apathetic on the issue. He simply does not want to give his mandate to a rotten political system. And I'm with him, too, in his belief that revolution, not reform, is necessary.
So I don't think Brand is totally idiotic. But, to be clear, he is an idiot.
During his impassioned speech on Saturday — perfunctory shirtlessness included — Brand called on the crowd to stage a "a peaceful, effortless, joyful revolution." Perhaps from his vaulted mega-celebrity subject position, uprisings can be made of sugar and spice and all things nice. But the view from the groundlings is less rose-tinted. Anger, pain, violence, and necessity — that's what revolutions are made of. One struggles to imagine what an "effortless" revolution might look like. How might the millions of poor, disenfranchised, and austerity-burdened of Britain wrest power and resources from the elite without effort? The answer, of course, is only in the mind of an eccentric superstar.
In 2013 I partially praised Brand for his refusal to detail a program for the political upheaval he endorses. The comedian refused to answer that old Leninist challenge, "What is to be done?" He rightly noted, instead, that we are too entrenched in our current socioeconomic and political mores, such that any utopias we might now imagine would be unavoidably formed by current ideologies — and it is these ideologies that have to go.
Think of it like this: If you had a blood-sucking monster on your face (let's call it, say, "capitalism"), I wouldn't ask you what you would prefer to have stuck to your face. Rather, I would kill the bloodsucking monster. Then, at least, we could start to talk. Radical social change can be thought of the same way: We must smash oppressive and controlling structures to enable real conversations about new ways of living and relating to even be possible.
I agree with Brand that social unrest can and should be joyful. Struggle needn't foreclose happiness. Indeed, one of the most celebrated essays in insurrectionary anarchist literature is Alfredo Bonanno's "Armed Joy." The Italian theorist, jailed in 2003 for six years for his alleged involvement in armed robberies, notably called upon fellow anarchists to "Hurry up and play." But, unlike Brand, Bonnano knew struggle would not be effortless, nor peaceful: "Hurry up and arm yourself," he also wrote.
I have no problem with Brand using his celebrity platform to slam austerity and crony capitalism. His exaltation, however, that power structures can be ruptured with a concoction of good ideas and a drizzle of peace and love proves he is little more than a well-intentioned clown.
Certainly, if we're looking to celebrity voices for revolutionary messages, Brand does not stand alone. I'd suggest there are better places to look in the entertainment industry for radical political analysis. Consider hip hop duo Dead Prez's take on the role of the police in defending capital. The group’s track “Police State” includes the line, "the reality is the police become necessary in human society only at that junction in human society when it becomes split between those who have and those who ain't got." Rapper Ab-Soul, in his hard-hitting “Terrorist Threat,” recognizes, unlike Brand, that political upheaval is never easy nor peaceful. "Willing to bear the pain, we'd put the White House lights out today," he raps.
The role of revolutionary discourse on celebrity tongues is a difficult one. It is, no doubt, better to have those with elevated public platforms talking about social change than not at all. But if Brand means what he says, he is calling for his own destruction too. A more equitable world has no space for superstars nor multi-millionaires. And perhaps Brand is indeed willing to leave his fame and fortune behind in the name of revolution. However, what his call to "peaceful" and "effortless" revolution evidences is a failure to understand that the rich and powerful have never tended to forego their privilege without a fight. Joyful revolution is easier said than done — especially for a handsome, white, articulate celebrity.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard